With recent news of sexual assaults at Davidson College and UNC Charlotte, students are asking administrators to be more transparent about what’s happening on campus and how they’re handling reported assaults.
While most students the Observer talked to in recent days don’t necessarily feel unsafe on campus, they said they want to make sure they’re getting enough information and support to protect themselves. But even as administrators promise they’re taking the issue seriously, they note that they’re constrained by federal privacy laws on how much they can share publicly.
At UNCC, about two dozen students and administrators showed up Thursday night at a student-led forum about campus safety. Sexual assault reports at UNCC increased 680 percent (from five to 39) from 2012 to 2014. That was the biggest jump for any school in the Carolinas, and 22nd highest in the country, among two- and four-year college and universities.
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UNCC officials said the school did not issue a campus-wide alert following the recent arrest of a student charged with rape on campus because the two students knew each other. Because the accused was quickly taken into custody, the incident didn’t pose an ongoing threat to students, said Jeff Baker, the university’s police and public safety chief.
That didn’t sit well with some students, who said the school should inform them of all sexual assault cases on campus. “I’m getting a call from my mom about something I don’t even know happened,” one student said. “I stay on campus. It’s of importance to me.”
Janell Norfleet, 20, a sophomore who lives in Holshouser residence hall, where the alleged assault occurred, said she thought the administration should have done more to inform students. “They can contact us about stuff being on sale in the bookstore all the time, and about sidewalks being closed, but not about a sexual assault in my own hall,” she said. “That was kind of upsetting.”
At Davidson, students and administrators say they’ve worked to create a climate that makes victims feel more comfortable about coming forward. But they agree there’s still a problem.
The number of reports at Davidson has risen to the point that the college ranks first in the Carolinas, and 31st in the nation, for on-campus forcible sexual offenses among private, nonprofit four-year universities.
“Things are better because we’re not trying to hide what’s happening anymore,” said Beth Wright, a 22-year-old senior from Montana. “We’re bringing everything out into the open now, even though it means we’re exposing the not-so-great parts about Davidson…We can’t get complacent.”
Recent cases became public
At both schools, sexual assault reports can be handled anonymously. But under federal law, victims have the right to decide whether to involve law enforcement officials. The recent incidents are drawing widespread attention because they involved police arrests, which made the names of the alleged assailants public.
The two cases at Davidson resulted in misdemeanor charges. The two at UNCC involved more serious felony rape. The cases:
▪ In early February, a Davidson baseball player, George “Ward” Coleman, 20, was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery involving a fellow student.
▪ In November, a Davidson sexual assault report led to the arrest of former varsity wrestler Danny Jones, 21, of Garden City, N.Y. He’s scheduled to be in court May 24 on a charge of misdemeanor sexual battery for allegedly fondling a fellow student in a dorm room.
▪ At UNCC, student Joshua Alford, 18, was charged with felony second-degree rape in connection with the alleged assault in Holshouser residence hall earlier this month. The victim is a 19-year-old female student.
▪ About a week later, Kevin Olsen, 22, quarterback for the Charlotte 49er’s football team, was charged with three counts of felony second-degree forcible rape, communicating threats, assault on a female and second-degree sex offense (forcible fondling). The alleged assault involved a 23-year-old former UNCC student at Olsen’s apartment near the campus.
High numbers reported
UNCC, a public university with 28,000 students, and Davidson, a private college with 1,950 students, have reported some of the state’s highest numbers of forced sexual assaults, according to the U.S. Department of Education database.
Both students and administrators at the schools say part of the reason for the increase in reports is that they’ve worked to create a climate that makes victims feel more comfortable coming forward.
Davidson offers an array of channels for assault victims to use, which includes reporting to college authorities or town police. The college also offers “bystander training” to teach students how to prevent a sexual assault if they perceive a problem in the making.
At UNCC, students can talk to residential advisers, Title IX officials, student health or wellness workers or police. Of the 12 rapes reported at UNCC in 2015, only one was brought directly to police, said campus police lieutenant Sarah Smyre.
Smyre said many students don’t want to go through the long criminal justice process. Others may not want to criminally charge the perpetrators, who are often acquaintances. “A lot of times they want them punished, but they don’t want them to be arrested,” Smyre said. “Sometimes ...they just want to get away from them.”
Students seek transparency
At Davidson, sexual assault has been a flashpoint since at least 2014.
That spring, students marched in support of student Susanna Vogel, who posted an essay about her frustration with the college’s sexual assault review process. She said she had been raped and her attacker, a fellow student, was allowed to stay in school, making it difficult for her to remain on campus.
Over the next year, a group of students and administrators revised the school’s policy. Many students agree the changes have helped encourage victims to come forward, resulting in the unusually high number of reported sexual assaults at a school considered one of the best small colleges in America.
Vogel, now 23, who graduated last year, said she’s impressed by the change in culture at Davidson.
She attributes most of the change to student-led efforts, such as “Take Back the Night” vigils and a support group for assault victims. She’s disappointed by what she calls the administration’s lack of transparency about internal investigations.
“I think it’s good that more students are reporting,” Vogel said. “I want to know what happens after they report.…They should publish the names of the people who have been found responsible (for sexual assaults). Students have a right to know that.”
Wright, the Montana senior, said she was assaulted two years ago by a student she knew, but decided not to file a report. Instead, she said she chose to put her energy into pushing for a policy that would improve safety for fellow members of Warner Hall, one of the social clubs for women called “eating houses.”
As Warner president last year, Wright said she spearheaded the passage of a “right-to-deny-entry” policy that allows a member to ask the group’s leadership to prohibit someone perceived to be a threat from attending social events. She said the group got considerable help from administrators to “work through conflicts with the legal and college policies.” But she’s said there’s been some “push back” from the administration this year.
Even though administrators assisted with that policy, Davidson spokesman Mark Johnson said they don’t believe it’s the most effective route to addressing sexual misconduct. They encourage victims to report an assault to the college so authorities can potentially bar the accused from entry to multiple places on campus, not just to the one.
Privacy laws present challenges
Students asking for more transparency often don’t realize that “we’re restricted in what we can say” because of federal privacy laws, Johnson said. “We can’t say anything about what’s going on in a proceeding. We can’t tell you much about an individual student.”
A student found responsible in a disciplinary case is subject to sanctions, which can include suspension. If the accused is put on “social probation,” remaining on campus with restricted movements, the student’s name and the sanction (not the reason why) are shared with presidents of fraternities and eating houses, residence life officers and campus police, Johnson said.
Often students who have been assaulted choose not to pursue disciplinary action. “We are extremely limited in what we can do until someone asks to take action,” Johnson said. “We have made progress in creating an environment in which survivors feel comfortable telling us what happened. We have two goals: campus safety and for the survivor to have control over what happens, over what support is provided or whether disciplinary action is initiated. If there is a clear threat to campus, we will take action regardless of what the survivor requests.”
Protecting one another
At UNCC, interviews with about a dozen students found that most feel safe on campus. Even though some of them didn’t receive emails about the recent assault, students said administrators and coaches have provided guidance during orientation and at other times.
“They definitely tell us to watch our backs,” said Quentin Jackson, 19, a freshman basketball player. “From an athletic standpoint, we’re pretty much taught what to do and what not to do. …We’re usually in groups of people. And I conduct myself in a way where I’m not in situations that anything like that can really happen.”
Norfleet, the student from Holshouser hall, said she and her friends Jazalyn Reid and Kyra Durham take precautions to protect each other.
“We always have one person who’s like, the ‘mom’ of the group,” said Durham, an 18-year-old sophomore. “We take care of each other like we’re a family.”
Reid, 19, a sophomore and the self-described “mom,” said she can spot a problem “from a mile away. At a party...I’ll constantly keep my eye out for other people and seeing what they’re doing, and asking ‘Hey, have you seen so and so?’ or ‘Hey, watch her. She’s been drinking a lot.’…Because people are crazy, and nowadays you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Priscila Baddouh, 30, a master’s degree student, praised the administration for sending timely emails about sexual assaults. But she said it’s hard to control what happens at off-campus parties.
“A lot of students live close by, and there’s where the parties are going on,” she said. “It’s completely out of the control of the university.”
At Thursday’s forum, UNCC officials said they’ve spent the past year improving emergency communications, and they plan to soon share improvements, including an updated campus-wide alert system.
In an email to students Thursday, UNCC Chancellor Philip Dubois emphasized that campus safety is a priority. “We do not tolerate sexual harassment and assault, and place a priority on educating our campus members on prevention and creating awareness around consent, bystander intervention, and reporting options,” Dubois wrote.
Staff writer Michael Gordon contributed.